You Want a Piece of Me?

Homeless Corey Black thought he'd struck gold when he says he was offered $10,000 to sell his kidney.

Corey Black walks with his nose tipped down to the ground but his eyes glaring dead ahead. His long black hair hides his pale hollow face from the sun, and it bounces with his stride. As he picks up speed outside the downtown library, his baggy black jeans and black button-down shirt press against his hungry frame. Then Corey stops short and with his right leg performs a snap kick.

Corey spends most of his time at the library. An overstuffed black backpack sags from his shoulders, and he could be a suburban high-schooler bound for Hot Topic. But Corey hasn't changed clothes in weeks. His hair is matted and dirty. He keeps his wallet on a chain because he often gets robbed. At 20, he's one of the youngest people living on the street. His pointy goatee and thin moustache are overgrown with peach fuzz.

Someone asks how he's ­doing. "Breathing," he says.

Corey spends most of his time at the downtown library, playing video games or checking his MySpace.
Mike Giglio
Corey spends most of his time at the downtown library, playing video games or checking his MySpace.
Corey Black did his own follow-up blood pressure work after testing too high during his evaluation at St. Luke's Hospital. He considered lying about the results.
Mike Giglio
Corey Black did his own follow-up blood pressure work after testing too high during his evaluation at St. Luke's Hospital. He considered lying about the results.

Corey's mood can shift ­unpredictably. His expressions change. But the look in his eyes is constant. It says, I'm smarter than you, and, you'll see.

Inside the library, Corey reads books such as Immortality: How Science is Extending Your Life and Changing the World and Quantum Evolution. He surfs the Web, and he hatches fanciful plans. He could work online. He could make $800 a week donating sperm. He could invent new medicine with his knowledge of herbs and plants. He could create the first carbon- and nitrogen-based hybrid life form.

One of Corey's fantasies is about to come true. He can sell his kidney.

Corey drifted into Houston from Kentucky about a year ago. He has since had a single source of occasional income. During Astros games and other big events, Corey says, he works under the table as a parking-lot attendant for a man named Albert Kalas. Kalas and his family own several lots around Minute Maid Park, along with a bar on Franklin Street called Eighteen Twenty and the adjoining arcade and pinball showroom, Joystix, where he keeps his office. According to county records, the Kalases own more than 20 commercial properties in Houston with a combined market value of more than $8.5 million.

Kalas, 72, is a gruff and stocky man who wears flannel shirts to work. He has a full head of black and gray hair, which he keeps slicked straight back. According to his son Charles, who owns and operates Joystix, Kalas emigrated from Greece at a young age with three dollars in his pocket, and from there he built himself into a successful and enviable businessman.

In the late 1990s, a local TV station filmed Kalas allegedly bribing three city building inspectors with free meals and drinks at a restaurant he owned then, which it estimated to amount to thousands of dollars. It also reported that the inspectors had not challenged code violations at some of Kalas's properties. The inspectors were subsequently disciplined and reassigned. Kalas, who wasn't charged, unsuccessfully sued for libel.

Corey got his job with Kalas through a man named Gilbert Coronado, a 29-year-old with a long rap sheet whom he met at the Star of Hope men's shelter down the street from Joystix. Corey says Gilbert approached him one day with a proposition. Kalas had a relative who was on dialysis and near death, and Kalas was looking to purchase a kidney. The initial offer, Corey says, was $10,000, and it later increased to $15,000. As Corey tells it, in February Kalas drove Corey and Gilbert to a local clinic so Corey could get his blood typed. He's Type O, the universal donor. With Kalas listening in on speakerphone, Corey says, he phoned St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital and made himself an appointment.

Buying or selling an organ is a felony punishable by five years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine — and it's believed to be rare in the United States. But it's also exceedingly difficult to prove. The 1984 federal law that prohibits organ sales has apparently never been litigated.

When contacted by the Houston Press on his cell phone, Kalas denied everything. He refused to speak in person to address Corey's claims. "Whoever's telling you that is full of shit," he said.

When informed of specific evidence collected by the Press, Kalas quickly ended the conversation. "I don't know what you're talking about anyway," he said, and hung up. Both Kalas and his son Charles refused additional requests for comment. Since it is not clear whether the kidney recipient knew of the circumstances leading up to his operation, the Press is not publishing his name.

In a recorded phone conversation, ­Corey and Kalas discuss the donation process and negotiate a bonus on the $15,000.

In another recorded conversation, Corey and Gilbert discuss the proposed kidney transaction in detail, mentioning both Kalas and his relative by name.

And hospital records show that on March 5, Corey walked into St. Luke's to begin the process of donating his kidney to a man he says he has never met. All he had to do was lie his way through.

"How much blood you got?" Mary wants to know, four days later.

Corey and his girlfriend are sitting, as usual, inside a study room in the library. Corey commands two laptops, at the helm of an online RPG (role-playing game). He is a vampire.

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